It’s almost impossible to imagine what it would mean to give our flesh for someone to eat. So try to imagine the effect which the words we’ve just heard would have had on a group of Jewish people. For them, as for us, cannibalism was a subject to be avoided. For most of us even thinking about eating the flesh of another person makes us feel sick.
But, there’s more. It was, and still is, against the Jewish Law to eat the flesh of an animal from which the blood hadn’t been properly drained. And yet, here’s Jesus giving his friends wine to drink which he says is his blood.
So then, how can we take these difficult words? What do they mean for our relationship with Jesus?
Well, first of all perhaps we need to face up to the fact that even modern religious practice makes use of ancient imagery, and it’s a basic biological fact that everything that lives, receives its life from another life. Many religious rituals testify to this, and it was common for pagan religions to hold sacred meals in which the community shared in the life of either their god or their enemy. The logic being that by eating their god, the worshipper shared in the divine life, whilst eating the enemy eliminated his or her power.
Christianity borrows this concept in order to speak of the way in which believers take divine life into themselves. The beginning of St. John’s gospel tells us that at the incarnation the “Word was made flesh”. This is the same as saying that the flesh of Christ contains God’s life for us all.
It’s easy to understand that food and life go together. Unless we eat physical food we die. Physical food symbolised by bread, which will of course eventually rot and decay, sustains our physical life, which as we know, ends in death. This is the bread which Moses gave to Israel in the desert. Living bread for the Christian community, which is the new Israel, sustains a lasting life that triumphs over death. If we want lasting life we must eat this bread of life.
God the Father gives Jesus, the bread from heaven. The work of Jesus is to give lasting life to believers. This is what God has commissioned him to do. Our work is to believe in Jesus, because only then can we benefit from the joint work of Father and Son. Eating and drinking can be understood as taking the very life of Jesus into the centre and core of our hearts. We need to saturate our hearts and our minds and our souls with Jesus, the very life of God. We need to be so filled with him that his very essence becomes a part of us.
Jesus told his disciples to believe in what God was doing for them through him. Belief was to be work for them. Belief is work for us too. All the work that we are required to do is to have a certainty in our mind and heart about God and God’s Son. And yet we continue to find this difficult. Some Christians think that they aren’t doing enough, and some no doubt, think that they’re doing more than enough. And both of these mistaken positions are based on works; the good and the bad things that we do. But the centre of our Lord’s teaching is really quite different.
Bread can’t be shared until it is broken. Wine can’t be drunk until it’s poured out. We take the bread and drink from the cup with the knowledge that it was shared with us out of love, as the ultimate sacrifice for humankind from God.
The heavenly food is made available through the breaking and bleeding and death of Jesus. This sharing of himself is sacramentally embodied in the Eucharist, and Jesus explains that through the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood, we will be raised up with him on the last day. It’s his promise to live through us as we receive him.
Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Our tradition values the sacraments. Jesus himself took bread and broke it; he poured out wine and offered these things to his followers with the words “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. He told them and he tells us through them to keep on breaking, pouring, eating and drinking in order to remember him. And when we go back to the words “do this in remembrance of me” in the language which they were first written, there is very good reason to believe that they mean “do this to make me present”.
Remember this when you come for communion in a few minutes time, for as you do you are completing all the work which Jesus requires. Work which will draw you ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ and keep you in eternal life. The life of heaven which begins now, not after you’ve died.
In the Eucharist Jesus invites us through love, to the beginning of the fullness of life that only the Son of God can give. A beginning which will lead, through death to a life more glorious than anything we can imagine. Can we pass up such a love as this? Can we honestly turn away from the one who gave himself for us so completely?